It’s not easy to make Mariano Rivera mad. But he bristles at the audacity of the idea that pitchers are not athletes.
“An infielder is always ready to field the ball at his position,” the long-time Yankees closer insisted Monday at the informal Roundtable event that ended Induction Weekend ceremonies, “but a pitcher stands closer to the batter. By the time he finishes his windup, he’s not 60-feet. 6-inches away but something like 53 or 54 feet. And his follow-through might not leave him in the best spot to field a ball coming back to him at 100 miles an hour. He has to be a good athlete just to protect himself.”
Rivera, scouted and signed out of Panama, spent his entire 19-year career in the Bronx, finishing with a record 652 saves and the first unanimous election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Shirts at numerous Main Street souvenir stands over the weekend read UNANIMOUS across the front with the letters MO – Mariano’s nickname – in white type.
A righthanded pitcher who rode a single pitch to immortality, Rivera joined Edgar Martinez as the first Latino tandem to reach Cooperstown in the same Hall of Fame class. The Class of 2019 also includes designated hitter Harold Baines and pitchers Mike Mussina, Lee Smith, and the late Roy Halladay.
Both the induction ceremony Sunday and the casual roundtable discussion Monday had a festive atmosphere, with flag-waving and bell-ringing out of the World Baseball Classic playbook, but the wet weather did its best to put a damper on the proceedings. The parade of legends was scrapped Saturday evening as thunder rumbled and moderator Peter Gammons ended the roundtable 10 minutes early as a light shower became a steady downpour.
That did not deter the fans of the new inductees, however.
Roberto Clemente was the first Latino to be enshrined, in 1973, and was followed (in alphabetical order) by Roberto Alomar, Luis Aparicio, Rod Carew, Orlando Cepeda, Vladimir Guerrero Sr., Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez, Tony Perez, and Pudge Rodriguez – giving the shrine its own Latin Quarter.
Martinez, like Rivera, spent his entire career with one club, serving the Seattle Mariners as a devastating designated hitter after injuries ended his promising career as a third baseman.
A number of voting writers consider designated hitters to be incomplete players, used only for offense but never on defense. But analytics showed Martinez deserved his niche, especially after compiling a .571 career batting average against Rivera. The product of Puerto Rico was forced to wait the maximum 10 years for election.
His double in the decisive fifth game of the 1995 American League Division Series against the Yankees was instrumental in keeping the Mariners franchise in the Pacific Northwest. Although the M’s remain the only American League team that has never won a pennant, hordes of Seattle fans journeyed to Cooperstown both from Washington State and Puerto Rico.
As a boy, he said, Martinez got hooked on baseball by listening to games on the radio with his grandfather. He said he wanted to copy Clemente but spent more time trying to emulate George Brett and Kirby Puckett, whose stances he tries when rare slumps hit.
“It’s such an honor to have my plaque in the same building with his,” said Martinez, whose entrance into the Hall was preceded by his humility. “I told Lou Piniella how much he meant to me and my career. I also told him I hope he gets the call to the Hall soon.”
Piniella, who also managed the Yankees and Reds, was instrumental in turning the Mariners into a contender that produced three Hall of Famers in Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Martinez.
Speaking to Junior, Martinez admitted, “It was a pleasure to watch your swing from the on-deck circle.”
The inductions of Rivera and Martinez produced a star-studded turnout. Griffey, Johnson, Jay Buhner, and other stars were there to salute Martinez, while the Yankees contingent included general manager Brian Cashman, former manager Joe Torre, and the Core Four of Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, and next year’s Hall of Fame favorite, Derek Jeter.
In recognition of the large contingent of flag-waving Puerto Ricans, Martinez opened and closed his comments in Spanish during the Sunday induction ceremonies.
“I’m so glad I stayed in Seattle my whole career,” he said, thanking the fans for the social media campaign in support of his Hall of Fame election.
On Monday, as a steady downpour failed to dislodge an outdoor gathering of supporters at Clark Sports Center, Rivera and Mussina delivered a comedy act worthy of Abbot & Costello.
When asked whether he considered it a demotion when the Yankees moved him from the rotation to the bullpen in his rookie year, Rivera smiled and said, “I used to run out of gas after five innings.”
At that point, Mussina made a “V” with his fingers, showing the crowd his opinion that Rivera was only good for two innings at a time. A legion of hitters will vouch for that fact.
Plaques for the six-member Class of 2019 were added to the Hall of Fame gallery after the induction ceremony Sunday, swelling the membership to 329. Next year’s induction will be held the third Sunday of July.
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